mssi logo

After Paris—what now for climate policy and research?

Our first Climate Conversation seminar for 2016 kicked off with a robust discussion from our academic delegates who attended the Paris COP21 climate conference.


“There was exuberance, dancing on the stage, a sense of euphoria”, is how Peter Christoff describes the ambience when the gavel went down at the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris. The focus of Tuesday’s Climate Conversations, the first in MSSI’s 2016 schedule, was to reflect on the outcomes of the Paris conference and to dissect what was really achieved, what it means for Australia and the world, and how to progress from here. The expert panel consisted of four MSSI members, all of whom were on the ground in Paris, representing the University of Melbourne: Peter Christoff, Robyn Eckersley, Cathy Alexander and Don Henry. This post is a summary of the key issues raised by the panel.

Is the post-Paris euphoria justified?

Almost all the panel members could not help but to compare the Paris conference to the 2009 conference in Copenhagen. Whereas the Copenhagen talks resulted in weak decisions that were not supported by a majority of countries, the main outcome from 2015 talks was the Paris Agreement: a 32-page long text documenting how 189 countries plan to cooperatively manage climate change.

As Christoff points out, the Paris Agreement text consists of 20 pages of accompanying decision text and 12 pages of substantive matter outlining in 29 articles how the agreement actually operates. The guts of the Agreement, which comes into force only in 2020, is this:

  • The world aims to limit the increase in average global temperature to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” and to “pursue efforts” to stay within 1.5 °C.
  • To achieve this, all countries are required to submit and maintain in a central schedule, pledges outlining how and to what extent they plan to reduce their national contributions to climate change.
  • The aggregate effect of these pledges will be reviewed on a five-yearly basis with a view to increasing efforts in a stepwise fashion.

“The Agreement is flexible and inclusive, giving it global legitimacy,” explains Christoff. However, whether it is ultimately good enough, he fears that it may be too early to tell. He describes three criteria for assessing the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement: whether it is robustly targeted, whether it provides institutional certainty (is it binding and effective?), and whether it is adequately funded. On the first two criteria Christoff is cautiously optimistic, suggesting that the text is strong, heavily focussed on process, and although reliant on voluntary efforts, raises the level of ambition. Where the Agreement is weak is on funding and equity. Climate finance was an important issue at the Paris meeting. The Agreement reconfirms a previous commitment to collect $100 billion per year for climate action in poorer countries. Yet, as Don Henry explains, “this is enough to get the Agreement through, but not enough to drive the transformation that is needed”.

Paris: too big to fail

For Robyn Eckersley, that the Paris Agreement has been seen as such a success is due to both intrinsic factors, as outlined above, and extrinsic factors, such as politics. Coming into Paris most countries had already submitted their pledges, thus most of the work had already been done. Two months earlier, the US and China had made a joint announcement on planned collaborative efforts around climate change action. This meant that the two biggest emitters were already showing cooperation and commitment to the task. And, a drop in the price of renewables has made the challenge of decarbonisation less daunting.

However, any negotiations that bring together nearly 200 countries and extensive representation from civil society and business require good leadership to ensure success. In Paris Eckersley witnessed leadership that was diffuse, shared, diverse and complex, although “ there were definitely some heroes and some villains”. Top on the list of heroes were conference President and then-French Minister for Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius who oversaw a clear, transparent and country-driven process; French ambassador for international climate negotiations, Laurence Tubiana; executive secretary of the UN climate agreement Christiana Figueres; and Marshallese Foreign Minister Tony deBrum. DeBrum formed a High Ambition Coalition bringing together both developing and developed countries. It was this coalition that successfully championed the inclusion of a 1.5 °C target in the Agreement.

What is not in the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is essentially one of process and machinery. As Don Henry explains, this puts a heavy emphasis on what happens after Paris. Analysis of the aggregate effect of existing pledges confirms that the world is on track for well above 2 °C. The review process will be important for ratcheting up these efforts.

However, according to Henry what is needed is a comprehensive and comparative analysis of country pledges: “We need to know which ones are strong, which ones are weak, what are the shared challenges, what sectors provide the most opportunity, where is there scope for genuine capacity building and so on. As this sort of analysis is not required by the Paris Agreement, it is contingent on civil society, especially NGOs, universities and the private sector, to make that contribution.”

Henry argues that although there has been a strong focus on the short-term and on what is formally outlined in the substantive articles of the Agreement, a broad long-term perspective is needed. Through the pledge process governments reflected on global commitments in line with national circumstances to develop policy. This has created an opportunity to drive change. However, Henry is conflicted on how to influence governments to drive this change. On the one hand the Paris talks, in their inclusiveness and transparency, have shown that there can be a platform for civil society to work with government within the policy process. On the other hand, the inadequacy of current country pledges suggests that there is still room for broader civil society strategies, such as the divestment movement, that function outside the policy process.

Nonetheless, both Henry and Eckersley see a key role for civil society, especially international NGOs, in keeping governments and the UN process to account. The five-yearly review process outlined in the Agreement text is incomplete and may not be robust. Large NGOs can provide a ‘shadow review’ process, promoting best practice, maintaining the pressure on governments, and establishing, in Eckersley’s words, a “Green Beauty Contest”.

What this means for Australia

“If you’re sniffing the wind, the trend of history is heading towards stronger climate action”. This was Cathy Alexander’s key message to Australian politicians. As she puts it, “the Paris Agreement is a game changer for Australia, albeit a slow-burning one”. As Alexander sees it, Australia has signed onto a deal for which its national policies are insufficient. Australia will need to increase its ambition, however as the Paris Agreement does not kick-in until 2020, the current government still has the option to stall—the subsequent one will not.

In an election year, Alexander foresees that climate change will become yet again a divisive issue for Australian politicians. For climate policies that are effective and popular, the government should be looking for mechanisms with direct benefits to constituents but costs that are diffuse or unclear. She cites the existing renewable energy target as a prime example: households benefit from rooftop solar, but are not quite clear on how it is subsidised.

For Alexander, the Paris Agreement raises two questions: (1) does the Agreement create space for Australian bipartisanship on climate change?, and (2) could it trigger a race to top? She answers ‘yes’ to both, but suggests that it will be some years away, and that the substantive change will come from the Coalition.


When compared to the outcomes of the Copenhagen conference in 2009, the Paris Agreement is a resounding success. It is both flexible and inclusive, generated through a bottom-up process of voluntary pledges. However, it is also a mere first step. In mid-April governments convene in New York to formally sign the Paris Agreement.  Will Malcolm Turnbull be in attendance? Then, on 4 May the UN will release a report updating the aggregate efforts of country pledges in context of the new 1.5 °C target. National efforts are currently insufficient to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change and by 2030 it will be too late to do anything about it.


Written by Anita Talberg, Australian-German Climate & Energy College


To receive information on our upcoming Climate Conversations seminars please email


Prof Don Henry


Prof Robyn Eckersley


A/Prof Peter Christoff


Cathy Alexander


   Listen to the audio